Latinx students can have a tough time navigating the numerous structural and institutional challenges that work against them in academia, especially when it comes to attending and succeeding in graduate school. A new book, The Latinx Guide to Graduate School (Duke University Press), by Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales and Magdalena L. Barrera, attempts to provide a pathway and guidance for Latinx and other students of color who are interested in pursuing an advanced degree.
The book highlights the experiences of Negrón-Gonzales and Barrera in their personal lives and academic careers. They outline the “unwritten rules” for becoming a graduate student for Latinx individuals who may have little to no knowledge of the process, because many are first-generation students. The book also includes a how-to guide for applying to graduate school, personal reflections and resources for undocumented students.
Negrón-Gonzales and Barrera answered questions by email about their new book.
Q: In what ways did your personal experiences shape the structure of this guide?
Negrón-Gonzales: Who we are, where we come from and the work we do infuse every page of the book. At the same time, we were intentional about thinking beyond our own experiences because they are limited, simply by virtue of being singular experiences. We wanted the book to speak to Latinx students in multiple contexts and from various places, across disciplines within the social sciences and humanities. In many ways, co-authoring was a continual act of checking in outside of our personal experiences, because even though Magdalena and I are deeply aligned, we also have different experiences in the academy.
Barrera: I would add that while we share stories drawn from our lived experiences and vivid memories of grad school, our advice and approach to the book was equally shaped by our professional experience working with so many undergraduate and graduate students over the years. Our thinking about how Latinxs navigate graduate school was deeply informed by the great questions our students asked, the vulnerability and challenges they shared with us, and their passion, commitment and success. Writing this book was a way for us to honor how they contributed to our own learning as teacher-scholars, writers and mentors.
Q: What are the biggest takeaways and lessons this book is meant to provide?
Negrón-Gonzales: We are explicit about the fact that the academy was not created for people like us—it is steeped in classism and racism. Having a grounded approach to graduate school requires an explicit grappling with that and also tempering that with an understanding that there is meaningful, redemptive work for us to do in that space. Also, doing that work can and should be done in connection with community. Our scholarship is strong when it is motivated by the real issues that our communities are struggling with and graduate studies can help prepare us to make meaningful contributions to this work. Graduate school does not need to be a lonely, solitary endeavor, and it’s so much better when it isn’t.
Barrera: At the core of the book is the idea that a master’s or doctoral degree is not an end in itself; rather, an advanced degree is a tool that enables you to go on to do something else, something bigger and for the long term. And being on that journey does not mean that you have to abandon your family, community or cultural values. In fact, that argument is what makes this a Latinx guide to graduate school. The message to readers is that our collective histories, values and ways of engaging in community can be our sources of strength as scholars. They are the means through which we transform the academy for the better.
Q: How does being a first-generation, low-income or undocumented student play a role in student success?
Negrón-Gonzales: The institution of higher education is one that is stepped in legacies of oppression, white supremacy and elitism. It is an institution that is shaped in every way by capitalism. So, that there are structural and institutional barriers is a given. At the same time, even the concept of “student success” is mediated in and through structures like class, opportunity and legal status. One of the things that we hope comes through clearly in the text is the idea that there is no one way to be a “successful” graduate student. Additionally, we need to problematize the traditional markers of success like GPA, standardized test scores, etc., and think about success being measured in things like how we are able to prioritize our health and relationships.
Barrera: Moreover, because of these factors, the things that seem “common-sense” when it comes to student success—attending office hours, forming a study group, getting connected to research—are opaque when you are the first in your family to navigate higher education. So even if someone encourages you to go to graduate school, you don’t understand how to research different programs, what kinds of questions to ask and how to approach faculty for letters of recommendation. Then if you get accepted into a program, there’s a general sense that because you made it this far, you know what you’re doing. But the reality is that being a graduate student is a completely different experience from being an undergraduate; the skills that made you successful before do not necessarily translate to the next level.
Q: What do you know now that you would’ve told yourself before receiving an advanced degree?
Negrón-Gonzales: I would have told myself that too much coffee and too little sleep will catch up with me in my 40s and that prioritizing my mental and physical health may seem like a distraction but is actually really important. I would have told myself to not worry so much about not being smart enough or good enough, that I do belong. And I would have told myself that even though it seems hard to believe at the time, one day writing would fill me with joy, be something I feel confident doing and that getting there is a process of learning and discovery.
Barrera: I would tell myself that going to graduate school is not only about delving into a field of expertise, but it is also about practicing the habits and tools that set you up for success. It means figuring out your workflow, time management and accountability structures to do the work in a way that is sustainable mentally and physically. Many graduate programs don’t address that process part, and I internalized my not knowing those elements as “Maybe I don’t belong here; maybe I can’t do this.” I would also tell myself not to be so intimidated by the show-offy peers in my program and to trust that I would find my voice with time.
Q: What are the institutional and structural barriers that undermine student success? What should college administrators do to dismantle them?
Negrón-Gonzales: Latinx and other BIPOC students undoubtedly face structure and institutional barriers in their pursuit of graduate degrees. Many first-generation students lack access to information and mentorship in the undergraduate years because the institution does not see them as scholars, or because they are working students and can’t take advantage of extracurricular enrichment opportunities. Graduate school is expensive. Latinx students and other students of color are rarely “only” students—they are also working, involved in community work, caring for family members and attending to multiple other obligations. Institutions need to invest resources into mentoring Latinx students, BIPOC students and first-generation students; they need to fund more fellowships that target underrepresented student populations; they need to build pipelines to graduate school. They also need to be attentive to the multiple ways in which systemic oppression shapes the lives of Latinx and BIPOC students and continue to resource programs that support mental health, professional development and legal services.
Barrera: As someone who is now an administrator, I can attest to the challenge of having conversations about the kind of culture change that Genevieve is describing. Faculty across the country are largely overwhelmed and overworked, especially coming out of the pandemic. So when we talk about the ways we can better serve Latinx and other historically underserved students, there’s real pushback: “You’re asking us to do even more!” But the reality is that it’s not about doing more—it’s doing things differently. And given the growing number of colleges and universities that have been designated as Hispanic-serving institutions or emerging HSIs, it’s incumbent to distinguish the difference between being Latinx-enrolling and Latinx-serving. Addressing equity gaps in higher education means systematically reviewing institutional policies and practices and identifying ways to integrate Latinxs’ community cultural wealth into what we do in and out of the classroom. Ultimately, these efforts will increase the holistic well-being and academic success for all students.